Personal Criticism from the Woman's Salon

By Erika Duncan, Karen Malpede, Gloria Orenstein, Sharon Spencer

(Editor's note: This 1976 booklet is a collection of personal statements by the founders of the Women's Salons. It includes several photographs which have not been reproduced here. The table of contents in this document has been designed for ease of navigation - it is not part of the original text.)
Table of Contents:

The Woman's Salon By Erika Duncan

On March 16 a symposium for women writers in celebration of Ellen Moers' new book, Literary Women, was held at the Library and Museum of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The panelists, Elizabeth Janeway, Cynthia Ozick, Lois Gould, Jill Robinson, and Muriel Rukeyser, discussed the concept of a distinct female sensibility, society's role in the surpression of the woman writer, and the effect of the current women's movement upon our literature. Cynthia Ozick spoke of "the great 'as if'" which liberates the woman writer to become whatever she wishes in her work, abolishing all barriers, while many of the others pointed out the very real perils of being a productive woman writer in our society, the doors closed to women both in terms of accepted content and public acknowledgement. There was much dissent and scepticism among those present, many of whom had had to climb to their current status through existing hierarchies. Four days later, more than one hundred women packed a plant filled loft in SoHo to listen to the reading of Rebeccah, a new play by Karen Malpede, a thirty year old playwright, about the birth of the feminist imagination, a poetic play in which "the tone changes from grief to joy as Rebeccah sees how a community can be built out of the garbage of this civilization."

These are the first two paragraphs of an article which appeared in the April 18 issue of Video City. Because one of our main goals in forming the Woman's Salon was the exploration of the female sensibility in relation to writing and the study of the effect that working with other women might have upon us, a few of us have decided to put together some of our more personal writings inspired by our participation in the Salon. Because of the particular format of the Salon, many of these writings take the form of introductions to specific events. In reprinting them we have tried to keep a thematic order, rather than reproducing the order in which they were written or presented.

Welcome Speech for the REBECCAH

reading by Erika Duncan - March 13, 1976

I want to welcome you all to the Woman's Salon and to this fourth reading which will be from Karen Malpede's now play REBECCAH. In a minute Marilyn Coffey will introduce Karen and the actors who will read tonight, but first I would like to say a few words about the Salon and how it came to be, also more specifically about my personal discovery of Karen and how it changed my formerly fearful way of looking at the literary community, because I feel that my experiences shed some light upon what this Salon is trying to do for all of us. About six months ago, Gloria Orenstein, whom I had met very briefly at one of the Saturday night soirees which I had held each week last year for Marguerite Young and her circle, called me to ask if I would be willing to work with her and several other woman in organizing a Salon for women writers and critics. At the time of our first telephone conversation, Gloria was able to tell me very little about the other women with whom we would be working, except that she strongly sensed a "seriousness of purpose" about them. Gloria had attended two informal gatherings for women during which new works were read and had been struck by the high level of communication as well as by the energy generated by the all female audience. She had seen in these gatherings the possibilities of the foundation of a larger movement. After the second gathering, she and Carole Rosenthal and Marilyn and Karen spontaneously began to share visions of an expanded future Woman's Salon and dreams of what it could become.

I agreed to try to work with Gloria, Carole, Marilyn, and Karen. In the beginning I was very sceptical about our project. Marilyn had known most of the women who had responded to her reading so enthusiastically. But the five of us were strangers and came from very different points of view.

How could I with my love for Dostoevsky, Proust, and Melville relate to a literary milieu composed only of women? How could my very internal writing about the dying old man who was my shadow self receive the kind of affirmation that I sought from a group of feminists? Knowing the cruelty and the competitive nature of the literary world, the bringing together of the different sensibilities that Gloria proposed seemed an impossibility that could only ultimately hurt us all. I was particularly worried about Karen, whom I knew to come from a very political place.

Our first official Salon was Gloria's slide talk on the Women of Surrealism. Impressed with the depth of her presentation, I bought her newly published book, THE THEATER OF THE MARVELOUS, in which she describes a wide variety of plays of surrealist origin, all linked by their insistence upon the use of the theatrical amphitheater as a means of transmutation into a higher spiritual state. The reading of her book opened new visionary worlds for my own work. During the months that followed this first gathering, I slowly learned to trust the four women with whom I was working, as wall as to appreciate the sacredness of the trust, as it is something alien to our conditioned suspicious hierarchical way of functioning.

In January I first heard Karen read her work at the Pratt Symposium which she and Marilyn and Lynda Schor and Carole had organized for women writers. After she read her moving play, A LAMENT FOR THREE WOMEN, she spoke of how she had felt compelled to abandon the traditional theater with its characteristic "slice of life" technique and realistic use of conversation without true communication. She had begun as a critic, working closely with the Open Theater, attracted to it by its involvement in feelings and inner expression. But after a long period of immersion in this largely non-verbal form, she had begun again to feel the need for language. She had begun to write her own plays, inventing new forms of direct speech, returning to the symbolic use of the word.

Karen's description of her personal evolution as a playwright was so similar to the aspirations of the followers of Artaud, as Gloria describes them in her book, the creators of the "Theater of the Event" who believed that only through the alteration of the concrete order of reality could the power of talismanic language be born, that I was stunned by the unexpected parallel.

Perhaps it was then that that my belief in the possibilities of the Salon became complete. Although I still would not describe myself as an active feminist, and although feminism is one of Karen's main priorities, I feel deeply connected to her desire to create new worlds through her work and to the intensity of her poetic vision. My realization that Karen, like the surrealists whom Gloria had followed to the far ends of the earth, was trying through her plays to shatter the prison of ordinary perception which must be broken in order to unleash the magic voice within us, was an affirmation that the five of us, in a way that is perhaps uniquely female, had come together out of a deep bond after all, out of a shared belief in the power of art as a vehicle for meaningful communication, transformation, and rebirth.

Working With Women: Introduction to Carole Rosenthal's and Ellen Evjen's Woman's Salon, April 24, 1976.

by Karen Malpede

I want to welcome you all to the April Woman's Salon, our fifth since we began last fall. Tonight Carole Rosenthal will read three works of short fiction. Tonight, too, is the first time a visual artist's work has been seen at a salon. This is Ellen Evjen's studio and her recent series of pastels is on the walls.

The Woman's Salon is a forum for criticism and theory as well as for fiction, poetry and plays, and, most recently, visual art. The connection between theoretical analysis and artistic creation is a vital one. The most compelling work to come out of the feminist movement combines analysis and passion, combines intellect and feeling, in ways that profoundly challenge the existing disorder because they take away from thought the false comfort of abstraction and take ineffectuality away from passion. The new mode of passionate perception is one that is uniquely women's, one that develops through our increasing knowledge of ourselves and of each other. So it seems appropriate tonight to share with you some thoughts about the process of change that is being discovered as women work together.

Very often when the violence of this violent patriarchal system under which we live and under which so many die has eaten its way beneath my flesh until every bit of hope I keep inside has turned to self-hatred, fear or to despair from it, a woman whom I once or whom I now work with will come to

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me full of the energy of her most recent discovery, full of the power of her free imagination fully engaged in understanding and the beauty of her vision and the grace with which it's given will fill me with a strength I had all but forgotten. Very often, then, we will spend hours speaking of creation.

The Woman's Salon came into my life this way--at a moment in the fall when all the efforts of the year before had dissipated into bad feelings and rage. At a moment when I was too weak and too lost to create, the Woman's Salon was born and I learned that the burden of creation can be shared. It has been, I think, our finest discovery of the year--one whose full reality we are only beginning to imagine--this understanding that all the harmony and all the diversity between the five of us can give comfort to whoever is down and energy to whoever is up.

I am having a similar experience now in rehearsals for the play Rebeccah which was read at the March salon. There nine of us have been drawn together out of nine distinct wishes for self-realization and we find we have common work to do. Work that not only extends the epic theater tradition into feminist time and space but which makes us aware of women's larger role as creators of a nonviolent world.

It was a male poet, W. H. Auden, who wrote, "we must love one another or die," but it is women who between us will create the ways to live that healing love. For it is women who best know by the bruises on our bodies and by the dark shadows on our souls all the shapes of violence and of hate. Therefore, it is women who can best determine what are the kinds of human interaction the human race must begin to refuse to repeat. And it is women working together who have begun to refuse to repeat them.

If there is a common cry echoing through women's writing, as I believe there is, it is the cry: how can I love; how can I love in this hostile world; how can I love when love is so often met with hate; how can I love when I am so often destroyed by love. But it is only now, I think, that we begin to see there is an answer to that cry. And insofar as we can give that answer an evolving form a human culture and a human community will finally be born.

Women first came together, hesitantly, in consciousness- raising groups to talk about shaving our legs and if we'd ever had an orgasm and if we could have orgasms with each other. Then, slowly, difficultly, we began to recognize that all we'd ever been taught about human relationships was wrong. Those of us who were on the left, as I was, already understood that the social world has to be transformed. But we did not know until we felt the necessity burn itself into our souls that the transformation would have to begin by our refusal to be victims anymore. Slowly, painfully, we began our ceaseless change.

What made us do it? What is the force large enough to have begun this world transforming process. There were books by women that helped us: Davis's The First Sex, Millet's Sexual Politics, Dworkin's Woman Hating, Firestone, Daly, Deming, Reed, Rich. And next to the written word there was the healing, caring spoken word of women we were beginning to call sisters. The spoken word and tender, all-embracing look of women who saw and responded to our pain.

It is this single act, I think, that has made all the difference--this taking in by women of other women's pain and knowing it because we feel it as our own. It is this

act that has released in us the will to change. How could we have faced the harsh truth of our own wasted life and wasted love, our own poverty, abuse, without the support of the self-same process going on in other women. Without the knowledge of other women's pain, their anger and their fear, we could not find our own.

Nor could we have moved to leave patriarchy behind. Now, because we were brave enough to offer comfort when comfort was all we had, we have begun to understand a joy we could not then have imagined -- the joy of living our own lives, the joy of working together for nonviolent change. It is this cycle of pain and joy, the constantly recurring internal and communal motion of recognition of the institutions that oppress us, renunciation of them and the subsequent rebirth of creative possibility that allows us to begin to understand another kind of social life other than the constant conflict between weak and strong that is patriarchy's dark, despairing vision. And it is the process of renunciation and rebirth that lets us recognize ourselves again as one with an eternal energy, as one with the life force.

Women writers, actors, artists have a specially important challenge now; it is up to us to make the emotional realities of this individual and communal process clear so that as the truth is felt other women and men will be moved to enter into process. We have the requisites for a nonviolent culture here. We have the action for our epic tales. And for our rituals, all that we hold sacred and inviolable.

p.9 - photograph


The more we worked together, the more aware we became that one of the things we shared as feminists was a perception of literary criticism as a means of entry and communication on a deep level, rather than an impersonal dissection and passing of judgement. In exploration of alternative modes of criticism, Erika Duncan wrote the following essay.

A Plea for Impassioned Reviewing

by Erika Duncan

Recently a psychoanalyst whom I very much admire, describing an experimental play which she had seen, told me about her resistance to the use of the theatrical amphitheater for what she termed "manipulation of the audience". Although she is an active fighter in her field against the psychic numbing and indifference so prevalent in our society, she was angered by a work of art that attempted to engulf the viewer and destroy the element of critical distance.

It has been so very long since art has been accepted as a source of magical transformation, involving a total and trusting surrender of self on the part of the spectator and a total giving of self on the part of the creator, that we are shockingly inexperienced in being profoundly moved. We fear the possibility of being altered, of allowing our reactions to get out of control. When literature affects us deeply, we immediately want to be able to define its power rationally, to lessen its impact, as it were, by dividing its whole into a series of comprehensible parts which will allow us to place it within a familiar and non-threatening framework. Although we wish to be enriched by the books we read, we do not want to take the risk of full immersion in the subjective vision of "the other" or be possessed by oceanic currents of emotion that will set off our own carefully submerged obsessions.

In this the modern critic serves us well. His is the science of demystification in all of its dimensions. He has relinquished his role of pathfinder for that of censor and judge. By providing us with the objectivity to analyse and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a given work, the critic is protecting us from forfeiting our own carefully won autonomy and distance.

Although we recognize that some of the finest literary criticism of the past was done by writers with a deep personal affinity for the works which they wrote about, often even by close personal friends of the writers, we ask our critics to be absolutely impartial and uninvolved, so that the value judgements which they ultimately arrive at will be as pure as possible.

Perhaps if we could become less interested in placing value judgements and more concerned about the meaning of literature as a form of sharing of perceptions on all levels, our reviewers would

be free again to write about the works they love the most, for indeed it is the reviewer who is most affected by a particular piece of writing who can best illuminate the journey towards the understanding of it, if true understanding is what we seek, rather than the arbitrary assigning of importance or lack of it.

If we could rid ourselves of the competitive hierarchical system which now dominates the literary world, where each new work must be assigned a specific place upon the ladder of success, we would be able to turn our energies towards discovering the spiritual and human realms contained in writings and their relevance to us as readers. Then the reviewer would no longer have to function as a barrier between the reader and the writer by writing about works to which he does not feel close. If reviewers were to write only about works to which they felt meaningfully connected, they would be able to offer deeply experienced accounts of their discoveries to potential readers with similar affinities and the books that sometimes fall by the way- side would be more likely to find their proper audience.

A more compassionate mode of criticism based upon affinities would also eliminate the tendency of most reviewers to concentrate upon the unsuccessful aspects of the works which are considered. The current system of evaluation and elaborate technical dissection creates a relatively safe field of operation for writings of recognizable merit which do not deviate greatly from the norms and standards which we have set up. However it creates numerous dangers for truly innovative works, which often in their reaching towards new forms are flawed, especially in the early stages of any given writer's development.

In striving towards the unattainable, which is a quality we recognize in all great works of art in retrospect, the writer must

explore previously uncharted realms. The more cosmic his aspirations, the more possible pitfalls he will encounter in the shaping of the final product. Knowing already what they have become, we are more than willing to forgive James Joyce and Virginia Woolf for the slight awkward moments in their early works. But we refuse to show the same generosity of spirit to the writers of the current generation. While bitterly complaining that there are no important works of fiction presently being written, we attack our more far reaching writers by focusing upon their imperfections, refusing to recognize the often blurred paths of their trajectories, refusing to have faith that they will some day get where they are trying to go. Ironically, it is the efforts of these writers who are able to consistently maintain their inborn water levels that we give the most support, those writers who, in the words of Emerson, never dared to "hitch their wagons to a higher star".

In writing only about the works that move him most, the impassioned reviewer has it in his power to re-establish the lost function of literature as a mode of deep spiritual communication. Potentially the reviewer can use his critical gifts to help contemporary readers suspend their disbelief, so that in the manner of ancient audiences they will be able to enter the zany underworlds of writing in a ritual of true communion.

Perhaps too, given an atmosphere of increased public trust and nurturance, more modern writers will become willing to make the harrowing and lonesome voyage into the depths of the unconscious from which great literature can grow.

For Erika Duncan and Gloria Orenstein, the mutual growth which came as a result of a close working relationship between writer and critic became an important part of the year. Here is Gloria's introduction to Erika's second reading, one to which men were invited.

Introduction to Erika Duncan's Second reading

by Gloria Orenstein - March 20, 1976

I want to welcome you to this the second reading by Erika Duncan from her recently completed novel. As most of you already know, Erika's reading from THE DEATH OF CLAIR section at the Woman's Salon generated such enthusiastic response from those present that there were many requests for her to give another reading which would be open to a male audience as well. I think that I speak for all of us in saying that this is one of the ways in which we would like the Woman's Salon to function, and that we all feel especially pleased to have you here tonight.

Before I speak about Erika's novel, I would like to take a few moments to share with you some of my reflections upon the unique position in which I find myself on this occasion and about why I am particularly excited about this event.

As critics and historians of literature, our professional training is curiously perverse, for we are skilled in analyzing and interpreting the works of those very writers who are, paradoxically, least in need of our talents because they have already been selected by the literary establishment as those having survived the treacherous climb to recognition. I am referring to the obvious fact that we have been educated to make astute aesthetic judgements about literary works of art with the delicious retrospective hindsight that will automatically support and validate all of our conclusions. Given, let us say, the nine or ten novels written by a particular author in his lifetime, it is quite a simple task for the critic to establish without a doubt the excellence of, let us say, the fifth novel, to definitively assess that book as "The Masterpiece" of his artistic career. For, from the point of view of retrospective hindsight it becomes eminently clear that not only were the seeds of greatness already visible in the very first novel, but also that the lack of unity and structure we had perceived in the third did not actually signal a decline in creativity as we might have assumed at the time, but was rather a necessary process heading towards a monumental breakthrough in style and vision to be inaugurated in the fourth and, of course, to be perfected in the fifth.

We are taught to view the development of a writer's work as if its totality had already pre-existed in some absolute form, as if the circumstances of the life did not really influence the inexorable unfolding of the work in the shape it was always predestined to assume. In adopting the vantage point of retrospective literary criticism, no matter what conclusions we may draw from our examination of the works before us, we take relatively few risks, for we are certain from our posthumous position that no new works will ever be written that will directly contradict our theories. Such is hardly the ease when discussing

the first work of a new writer, and it is not surprising that critics have shied away from first novels and have been reticent to go out on a limb to praise the work of a young novelist. History may always prove them wrong!

That is precisely the point. As feminists we are aware of the fact that the work does not already pre-exist in an absolute shape. We know, as did Virginia Woolf, that because of the role assigned to women in our society the road towards the creation of the all-important fifth novel is a long and difficult journey. When we came together to form the Woman's Salon, we were responding to a real need being felt by young writers during their formative period of creative development. I was convinced that the absence of this contact between critic and writer resulted in too high a degree of speculation about the creative evolution of the work as well as a certain amount of distortion in our comprehension of it. Although, naturally, the retrospective position lends itself to a greater overall objectivity, the sense of mutual discovery and affirmation that the writer and the critic experience when there is a deep communication established between them creates an energy and excitement in the ongoing work that amply compensates for what may later be judged to be a lack of objectivity. I also felt that it would be important for me as a critic to have affirmed a work at the moment when it first came to life, and to be able to study the evolution of an author from the more risky but perhaps more exciting perspective of the life-work-in-progress.

Although the avocational occupation of mailbox watching can be a depressing and alienating experience for all writers, we know that the female artist experiences a double sense of exile in our culture -- that of the artist, and that of the professional woman whose commitment to her work makes demands upon her time that are at great odds with

the expectations of the role that women are traditionally expected to play in our society.

As a feminist and a critic I care very deeply about the fate of the new literature that is now being created by our women writers. I care that their works survive and that they may be pointed to with pride in future generations so that our sons and daughters may never have to ask the terrible question "Why did so many women writers have to take men's names?" I want our women writers to be recognized, to be encouraged and to be respected so that their work will evolve, mature and ultimately take its rightful place in our literary history.

Who is there then who will go out on a limb for that young writer? Committed as I am to these principles, I believe strongly that it is incumbent upon all critics to speak up for those works we feel are worthiest of our attention and to speak for them now, not twenty-five years hence when they have already proved their staying power, but now, during the moment of their painful emergence, their struggle to be born.

I would like to take this occasion to speak about Erika Duncan's work without the benefit and security of long years of study, without the creative output of a lifetime spread before me to facilitate my interpretations and evaluations. I am convinced that because of the excellence of this work that Erika to one of those promising young novelists from whom still greater works will yet be born, and I look forward to reviewing her second and her third novels, and even that famous, hypothetical, and all-important fifth!

One of the most amazing aspects of this first novel of our 29 year old author is its incredible philosophical complexity. The maturity of its vision and the skill with which the themes are expressively rendered convince me that it achieves a universality in its import and significance. Erika's novel is an intricate and elaborately articulated metaphor about the quest for ultimate fulfillment in human experience.

It brings to light the vast discrepancy that exists between our immense longings and the realizations of our experiences which always fall somewhat short of our exalted expectations. The tragic aspect of this quest is that the energies of her characters are totally invested in precisely those relationships that are least capable of satisfying their deepest needs.

The two protagonists, Laura and Peter, live through the pain of striving and yearning for the impossible completion of themselves by some unattainable other. Each is eventually led to a renunciation of that former identity, which seemed to be so painful and so threatening to those they most wanted to possess. Laura and Peter, in very different ways, have had to expiate their former selves because of the immensity of their longing, the giganticism of their needs and dreams which have caused the chosen Other either to flee, or still worse, to die. Yet the protagonists adopt a new identity which ultimately becomes a catalyzing agent for a psychic transformation that prepares them for a moment of self-acceptance and occasions a spiritual rebirth of the former self on a higher level.

You will hear Laura's story tonight. Peter is the persona in this novel who represents the quest of the artist for acceptance and recognition in the world. He, like Laura, seeks the immensity and ecstacy of an elevated level of communion and creativity. Yet he is destined to lose his one precious relationship with his chess master, Sandor, because of his threatening precocity and genius. The book is about the artist's struggle to continue to live with the immensity and passion of his dream that the world cannot bear to see. It is about the ultimate sacrifice of the artist's deepest longings, the forfeiting of his true identity, and his ultimate refuge underground. But that martyrdom is also the great alchemizing force which transmutes his energies into the formulation of a new vision and leads to

an eventual resurfacing of his former brilliance in a new esthetic form. It is Peter's art that is reflective of his deepest luminosity, and it is in that art, so similar to the works of Rouault's clowns, those "monarchs of pain and laughter" that the rebirth of his genius and former self can take on its greater spiritual dimension.

Another important theme in the book is that of the meaning of memory and of the imprint of others' lives upon our own and of our lives upon others. It is through memory and consciousness that those early experiences of our formative years become re-energized and re-charged when evoked by moments of intensity in the present. Whether these imprints will mutilate, blind or cripple us psychically, or whether they will permit us to truly respond to another human being in a total way depends upon our ability to come to terms with the many layers of time that charge the significance of the present moment. If we cannot do this the weight of the past may shut us off from the poignancy and intensity of the fullness of the present. This is the conflict in which the characters of Erika Duncan's novel find themselves trapped.

Time, memory, and consciousness play an all-important role in the structure of the novel and particularly in the cadence of the phrase, which undulates wavelike between past and present, memory and moment, inner perception and outer experience so that ultimately inner reality transforms outer reality according to state of soul and quality of inner being. Because of this transformative power of her language Erika succeeds in rendering a portrait of Laura, the prostitute, with all the spiritual fervor that should have been part of the vision of her sister Madelaine, the nun. But Madelaine's religiosity is shown to be merely a mask behind which she could cloak her cold ungiving nature, whereas Laura's earthly lusts reveal her deeper spiritual essence.

A religious symbolism suffuses the setting of the novel lending to these suffering "sacred pilgrims" an aura of luminescence emanating from the consciousness of their profound personal and spiritual anguish. Each character must live out his obsession to its fullest consequences, but ultimately each in his own way remains as noble for us in his passions as do the stately chess men illuminated by the final light of Peter's oncoming bus in the Epilogue of the novel.

Erika Duncan never loses sight of that nobility of the human soul in all its pathos and its pain. Her novel pleads for survival through self-affirmation rather than self-immolation and for acceptance of that immensity, which the artist comes to represent, as one of the dimensions of reality that lays dormant in the secret recesses of every soul. It is the intense passion of the artist's soul that Erika Duncan sees as the vital energizing force of all mankind and it is experienced universally, as her treatment of the other characters in the novel bears out. This recognition of the immensity of human passion is an absolute prerequisite for human fulfillment in life.

Erika Duncan's writing touches with great sensitivity those parts of us that are long forgotten, long buried under many layers of social taboo, and deeply hidden from our ordinary perception. Yet her writing is meant to function as a healing and as a blessing. The prayers that come to Laura's lips are the beginnings of hope for all those who strive to pave, as Sharon Spencer so aptly put it in her introduction to Erika's previous reading, "their roadway through the inner night". Erika's novel reminds us that the human experience of suffering and striving is the one truly religious experience of life, that our quest for ecstasy and love is the spiritual quest par excellence and that it is the most noble and sacred aspiration of humankind.

As I have already mentioned, I was particularly interested in investigating the evolution of the creative process in a given work

of literature. In preparation for reading this last chapter of the novel that you are about to hear tonight, Erika took me on the walk that Laura takes in this section of the book. With the author as my guide I experienced the vision of the inner journey from the flower market to the church of St. Francis of Assisi as the protagonist saw it from her state of religious exaltation. Without revealing any of those details to you now, I would like, however, to say that those images which may seem to be the most hallucinatory and spectral turned out surprisingly to be based upon actual reality. The importance of this discovery was not in the fact that I learned the whereabouts of these artifacts, which all exist in the stores precisely as they are mentioned in the passage, but that Erika, in recreating a state of expanded consciousness, came into such close contact with the vision of her character that she, herself, was drawn in life to discover those very parts of New York, those holy places that would figure so prominently in the novel when she needed them most. In some very intrinsic and organic way Erika's most visionary writing is always authentically wedded to the real.

In closing I would like to sum up what I find to be most expressive of the precise definition of Erika Duncan's talent by quoting from Ellen Moer's reference to Willa Cather's THE SONG OF THE LARK, as she uses it in her recent book, LITERARY WOMEN. In speaking of the musical genius of Thea Kronborg, she recalls:

"What is Thea Kronborg's secret, someone asks Harsanyi, the piano teacher who first discovers that her musicality is of an operatic nature. Her secret? It is every artist's secret--he waved his hand--Passion. That is all. It is an open secret and perfectly safe. Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials."
p.22 Includes a photograph of Erika Duncan reading.
Writing seriously about each other's work has opened new doors for all of us, has allowed us entry into literacy experiences which previously might have been closed because of our instinctive guarding of our own ways of doing things. Here is an essay collaged out of letters written to Sharon Spencer by Erika Duncan during Erika's reading of Sharon's fiction.
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The Present Tense in Sharon Spencer's Work

by Erika Duncan

In a recent paper on "Making the Novel Novel" Sharon Spencer wrote: "Innovation is conscious or unconscious adaptation. It is writing in one's own space-time. Innovation occurs naturally when a writer is also an artist; he will be so profoundly aware of his own age that he will discover the language and the structures that reflect the basic realities of that age."

Because the merging of past and present and the complicated overlays of memories through which lives can unfold in fiction have always been important to me as a writer, it was difficult for me to understand at first why Sharon Spencer used the present tense, which all previous experience had taught me to perceive as limiting. In my mind the use of the past tense had always seemed a necessary vehicle for the freedom from chronological time which characterizes interior writing, allowing memories to come at will from the unconscious as the images that called them forth arose. I saw the utilization of the present tense as reflective of the narrowness of contemporary culture with its focus on the moment and upon the ever forward rushing future.

Although I still believe that much of the "timely" writing being done today is unilateral because it lacks the deeper resonances caused by linkage with a past both collective and personal, I now feel that it is possible, through the creation of new forms, to fuse the power of the past with the unfolding present and to amplify it. This is what I feel Sharon Spencer is exploring with her particular way of using the present tense in her fiction.

It was only after I read Sharon Spencer's "Rooms Without Windows, Rooms without Doors" (which appeared in 0yez Review) that I realized that her individual approach to the present tense does not at all limit the fluidity of her voyages through time and space, but rather given her an unusual elasticity of dimension so that, like the movie screen

she uses as a vehicle, any memory that flashes upon the screen of consciousness becomes enlarged and immediate.

This is a powerful short piece. There are continual mergings of separate characters who are like many sides of self, like mirrors or echo chambers for each other. Thus the yellow rose that Carla wants eventually appears in a reconciliation bouquet given to Alba. Especially vivid were the images of underwater anguished faces in the bathtub, and the love song that Piero listens to while he refuses to hear Alba's desperate cries for love, the violent love makings which become an almost religious obliteration of consciousness rather than a fulfillment of the search for closeness, and the omnipresence of the many men who cannot alleviate the basic loneliness.

Sharon Spencer's novel, THE SPACE BETWEEN, published by Harper & Row, is one of delicate juxtapositions of interconnected lives and perceptions. In it, each small action of any one character becomes a catalyst for complex chains of reactions and emotions in the others, causing gaps that had not been there before or mergings previously impossible. There is a wonderful concentration upon the memories evoked by smell and temperature, an imagistic insistence upon these often neglected senses. Because of the peculiar sensuous state caused by the momentary mixture of sandalwood perfume and the smell of pine, an encounter occurs which radically alters the lives of all the characters.

The novel is like a constantly evolving Oscar Lewis study raised to poetic dimensions. Sharon Spencer is incisively aware of psychological nuances. It is with gentle compassion that she portrays Niccolo's enjoyment of his own despair and disappointment when he finds that he must let go of the almost soothing scenario of the slow loss of his wife which he had invented. The multiplicity of obstacles to trust, the continual and inevitable misunderstandings which arise out of attempts to come close, are echoed even in the crisscrossing patterns of the mountains and the trees, the all-obscurring snow.

Since we had come together not only as writers but as critics, we decided to begin each gathering with an introduction that would share a mode of entry into the work being presented. Here is Sharon Spencer's introduction to Erika Duncan's first reading.

Introduction to Erika Duncan's Reading

by Sharon Spencer - January 31, 1976

As I look around the room I see people who have, I believe, read Erika Duncan's remarkable novel. When I finished reading, I made notes--quite extensive notes--and the comment I made to sum up my impressions was this: "A brilliant and unusual book. Very true. Very New York. This book must be published, but it will frighten most people."

Erika Duncan's book is in the tradition of the lyrical novel, a tradition that includes such writers as Djuna Barnes, Marguerite Young, Anais Nin, William Goyen, Diana Cavallo, and other distinguished novelists. Erika Duncan's novel is definitely a night piece, and so I thought a way to introduce her reading, a way of setting what I sense to be the appropriate tone, would be to read a passage from NIGHTWOOD. I feel that Erika's book is closely related in a deep psychic way to Djuna Barnes' masterpiece. I am reading from Dr. Matthew Mighty O'Connor's soliloquy in the chapter called "Watchman, What of the Night?"

"To think of the acorn it is necessary to become
the tree. And the tree of night is the hardest
tree to mount, the dourest tree to scale, the most

p.26 Photograph of a reading by Erika Duncan.


difficult of branch, the most febrile to the touch,
and sweats a resin and drips a pitch against the
palm that computation has not gambled. Gurus, who,
I trust you know, are Indian teachers, expect you
to contemplate the acorn for years at a stretch,
and if, in that time, you are no wiser about the
nut, you are not very bright, and that may be the
only certainty with which you will come away, which
is a post-graduate melancholy--for no man can find
a greater truth than his kidney will allow. So I,
Dr. Matthew Mighty O'Connor, ask you to think of the
night the day long, and of the day the night through,
or at some reprieve of the brain it will come upon
you heavily--an engine stalling itself upon your chest,
halting its wheels against your heart; unless you have
made a roadway for it."

In her novel Erika has made a "roadway for the night." This is a book in which the most bitter of truths is faced: the truth that possibly one has never been loved. Never. Ever. By anyone. Or the possibility that if one has been loved, it hasn't been as one wanted to be loved. Erika has been very old and very wise before her time. I think now that she is going to look forward to her youth. One of the novel's characters is named Laura. Of Laura, Erika has written: "She had dreamed of life beginning."

Well, you may be very surprised to know that when I chose today's date, January 31st, to introduce Erika's novel, I did not know that it was the eve of her birthday.

Happy Birthday, Erika.

Erika Duncan is currently working on her second novel. A long section of the novel which she recently completed will be appearing in the forthcoming issue of ARMADILLO. She has published critical articles on Marguerite Young's work in CHANGES, UNDER THE SIGN OF PISCES, Anais Nin's newsletter, and in VIDEO CITY.

Freda Leinwand has a special interest in women's themes and has photographed our Salon since its inception. Her photographs have been published in many books and magazines, including The New York Times, The Encyclopedia Brittanica, Popular Photography, and books by Random House, McGraw Hill, and MacMillan. She has shown widely In Now York and Canada.

Karen Malpede is a radical feminist who writes plays and theory for the theater. She is author of A LAMENT FOR THREE WOMEN, REBECCAH: THE CYCLE PLAY: PART ONE and PEOPLE'S THEATER IN AMERIKA. She edited and wrote the introduction to THREE WORKS BY THE OPEN THEATER.

Gloria Feman Orenstein is the author of THE THEATER OF THE MARVELOUS: SURREALISM AND THE CONTEMPORARY STAGE. She is a Contributing Editor of THE FEMINIST ART JOURNAL, Associate Editor of SHANTIH: A QUARTERLY OF INTERNATIONAL WRITINGS, and a professor of English and Women's Studies at Douglass College.

Sharon Spencer is the author of THE SPACE BETWEEN, a novel, and a critical study, SPACE, TIME AND STRUCTURE IN THE MODERN NOVEL. Her book on Anais Nin will be published by Swallow Press in the fall of 1976. She is a professor of English at Montclair State College.

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